Monday, December 12, 2016

MP3s from 3 conferences that could help you share your faith


My wedding certificate lists my occupation as evangelist. A teller of good news. I was on the UCCF relay programme at the time. It's always been a passion in my Christian life --- in part because my formative years as a believer were as part of a Christian Union, the first Christian books I read were by Becky Pippert and Bill Hybels...  though honestly an unevangelistic Christianity doesn't really make much sense. Evangelistic ministry isn't just evangelism but also includes equipping other for witness.

I drift from time with people outside church, and I drift from courage to speak up, I struggle to be patient, and I struggle to believe that Christ is for all. Other people help me.

I ended up at three conferences this year that have been helpfully corrective to the trajectory of my year, to my dull heart, and to decisions we've made as our family have relocated this year.

I hope they coudl help you too.
1. Advance UK . Advance is part of the newfrontiers family connecting churches in the US, South Africa and UK. Donnie Griggs on evangelism and Dan Romer on Christ from Song of Songs. Donnie book Small Town Jesus overlaps with his material here. 
2. Proclamation Trust - Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2016This diverse gathering in London focuses on word ministry and was deeply refreshing to me, even in the one day I attended. Especially Jonty Allcock from Luke's gospel. And, Vaughan Roberts on John Newton helped me see Christ as more precious. 
3. FIEC Leaders 2016FIEC is a fellowship of 565 churches in the UK. Ed Stetzer was brilliant in sharing a simple and clear practical vision for sharing our faith. High value for me and for our team.
Images - Tamaki Sono - Creative Commons

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Trampolines and Brick Walls: Don't flex on the gospel, do flex on everything else to love the church and advance the gospel.


In his 2005 book Velvet Elvis Rob Bell argued that the church has a problem because we think of theology as like a brick wall - rigid and systematic, whereas we should look at our theology as being more of a trampoline - flexible and in which some of the springs can be safely removed. The analogy seems really attractive, though it's pretty flawed - not least because you could removed more bricks from a wall than springs from a trampoline before everything would fall apart... but beyond that it's also woefully ignorant.

In writing to Galatians Paul wont have any of this anti-doctrinal faith. He tackle gospel denial and says it's Father-desertion... he speak of gospel truth and it's about the Father's revelation of the Son. It's life-filled, relational, and write-down-able. And accuracy matters - because it's curse-worthy to believe a different gospel, and to teach others to hope in something contrary to Christ. Theology is about the knowledge of the Father and his Son by the Spirit - it's not cold and rigid, but without accuracy we're not talking about the same God, just a similar one. Or in Galatian language "a different gospel that is no gospel at all... a perversion of the gospel." 

But, some things are flexible and some things aren't. The gospel can't be up for grabs, a lot of other stuff must be - at least when it comes to ministry practice.

In Galatians 2 Paul tells one of three stories to his Father-deserting friends that build his case that they should get back to where they began rather than heading off in a different direction. He tells that he went to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel for them (2v5). It's worth a big detour upstream to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel in Turkey - just as later it's worth a big detour to to Jerusalem to maintain the unity of the Jew and Gentile churches in Rome.

Though there were false brothers in Galatian - counterfeit-christians - the church itself hadn't lost the plot and they recognise that "God who was at work in Peter... was also at work in Paul" and "they recognised the grace given..." to both Paul and the Jerusalem church. One gospel.

What's curious is the test for finding out whether Jerusalem is true to the gospel.

  • Paul takes Titus in the expectation that gospel loss would mean he'd be compelled to be circumcised (v3). Meanwhile, in Acts 16v3 (possibly around the same time, depending on how you date Galatians), Paul gets Timothy circumcised so he can take him with him.  To be clear: If the Jerusalem church compels Titus to be circumcised that's evidence that the gospel has been lost, but when Paul gets Timothy circumcised that's the gospel advancing.
  • Likewise, in Paul's next story - Peter stands condemned for putting himself back under food laws, and in effect saying to his Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch that they're not welcome unless they take on the food laws too. But in Romans 14v21 Paul says it's best not to eat if that'll cause problems for your brother or sister from a Jewish background.

Context and motive call for different practices. It's a recipe for inconsistency but necessary for the inclusion of diverse peoples and for taking the gospel diverse peoples. And it works because, the gospel isn't a matter of out conformity. Habits, festivals, food laws and bodily markings aren't the issue. Loving the church and reaching new people require different approaches at different times and in different places. What would we need to flex to ensure that the only obstacle is the gospel?

Paul embodies this by being prepared to become all things to all people to win some... and by his substantial detours - twice to Jerusalem - to demonstrate bond between the Gentile and Jewish churches.

The real mark of the gospel isn't what we wear, eat or celebrate. It's the Spirit of the Son indwelling the believer by faith and enacting our adoption. All else is flexible. Sadly churches fall out over loads of things, but a true gospel priority should mean most of those things - important as they are - are matter over which we're more than happy to flex, to serve other believers and to reach those who aren't yet believers. Sadly, we tend to hold on to things for the sake of having church how we want it to be.

If I get this then I'll be radically committed to welcoming any other believer and removing things that are obstacles for their conscience out of the way, and to welcoming those who don't believe by changing anything at all - apart from the gospel. If I get this I'll be incredibly flexible and inconsistent in my view of almost everything in church life... though that'll look messy, I suspect the gospel shines brighter against that messy backdrop.

Image - Creative Commons - Missle

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Greatest Gift - Of Sainsbury's and the Incarnation


The nativity scene can seem sweet, inspiring and utterly removed from our day to day experience of life in this broken world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Step back and we find that in the beginning was The Word - a communicative being, who was with God. The Word is also called the Son, Jesus. And God is called the Father. Both are God. This is the Triune God. And from eternity past the Father has been giving the gift of himself to his Son and the Son likewise to his Father in self-giving, overflowing love in the Holy Spirit. Love that created the world, and love that steps in...

Sainsbury's Christmas advert is on the money - the greatest gift we can give is ourselves... though, you have to ask how that makes any sense in a secular material worldview? But through the lense of the Christian faith it makes perfect sense. In Biblical terms, it's love that is at the heart of the universe.

The Christmas story is the story of God with flesh on, God in meet, God becoming a human being. John writes in the opening of his biography of Jesus: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."  Now, God dwelling is nothing new, the whole story of the Old Testament is a story of God dwelling with his people - this God is a God who dwells. And, the notion of God in flesh isn't exactly new either. The Old Testament tells of the coming of a son of Eve and a son of David to restore all things... the new thing in the New Testament is that the incarnation happens.

The song asks - what if God was one of us? And the Bible's response is... see for yourself, in the accounts of John, Mark, Luke and Matthew.

My God is so small and so weak, a vulnerable baby in a feeding trough. Or, as the 4th Century Egyptian pastor Athanasius brilliantly asks and answers:
"Why didn't Jesus come in more impressive form - as sun, moon, stars or fire? Why come as a mere man? Because he did not come to dazzle us but to put himself at the disposal of suffering people..."
He turned up as one of us, a member of the human race not to dazzle us (as if we need more sparkly lights) but to put himself at our disposal. He makes himself available to needy suffering sinful humanity in exactly the way we need him to be.

In the Sainsbury's advert 'Dave' thinks he needs a clone to do his work so he can be with his family. What we need isn't someone to pick up the stuff we don't want to do but to live our lives and die our death for us. We need the head of a new human race....
"He did this so he could put us all to death by dying in our place... out of sheer love for us."
The death of Jesus puts humanity to death to abolish death for us and bring us into his new resurrected humanity. Christmas and Easter go together. The story of the word become flesh is the story of a seed who came to fall into the ground so it could bear much fruit, of a man striding towards the hour of his death. A light walking in the darkness, among a people who corrupted God's dwelling place, a people under wrath, a people who can't shape up but rather need to die and be re-born, re-made.

And says John, the coming of God the Son as a member of the human race leads to the knowledge of the Father, and the adoption of any men and women who receive the Son into the family of God. Forever, familial, relational, participation in the life of God given to all kinds of people who receive the God who forever became one of us.

Image - Stefano Corso - Creative Commons